The secret employability programme on your high street

Graham, who’s in his early 60s, has been unemployed now for over five years. Health problems brought a 15-year career as a traveling sales executive to a premature end, and since then he’s struggled to find paid work that can accommodate his needs. Although reaching a stage in life when others might be thinking about retirement, Graham is determined to find work, but he’s also realistic about the challenges he faces:

’If you haven’t got some retail experience, they won’t even touch you a lot of places […] and because of my health I’ve got to find someone that will take the risk and take me on […] it’s a big hurdle that I’ve got to get over because I don’t want to be one of those that sits at home.’

While he looks for work, Graham has, for the past year, been volunteering in a local charity shop. He’s one of an estimated 220,000 people across the UK now volunteering in the charity retail sector, a quarter of whom are doing so while they look for paid work. Although best known for raising funds for parent charities (some £270 million in total in 2015/16), I’m speaking to Graham as part of a research project, by the think tank Demos, looking at charity shops’ wider social impact on local communities and high streets.

I ask Graham about his experiences at the shop and whether or not he thinks it’s improved his chances of getting paid work. He tells me that it’s given him that crucial retail experience, including how to use a till, an understanding of stock rotation, and how to price and display products. Above all, though, he argues it’s helped rebuild his self-esteem:

‘One of the main things they do is give you some confidence back, you get such a hard knock all the time looking [for work], it’s nice to go to somewhere like that. You get recognised for the fact that you are a good worker.’

Graham’s not alone. When we surveyed charity shop volunteers as part of the research, 95 per cent of those also looking for work said that their volunteering role had improved their self-esteem or confidence. In the same survey, two-thirds said that they thought that volunteering had also improved their job prospects. For Graham, his experience has not yet to lead to a job offer, but it is having tangible outcomes:

‘It aided me getting to an interview, and that’s one of the big tasks now, actually getting an interview, let alone a job’

A week or so later, I speak to Jane. A few years ago, she got married, left her job in academia and moved to rural market town. While highly qualified in her field, Jane didn’t have the required experience to get, in her words, a ‘normal’ job. With retail being the only major employer in the town, the opportunity to volunteer in a local charity shop provided the vital leg up Jane needed to move into paid employment, as she explained:

‘I wouldn’t have got the job if I hadn’t had till experience, that I had got through working in the charity shop, and it gave me a referee.’

While robust figures are difficult to come by, Jane’s experience seems relatively commonplace, with 1 in 4 charity shop managers that we asked saying that ‘all’ or ‘most’ of their jobseeking volunteers moved on to a paid job.

Although charity shops’ role in supporting employment outcomes may be little known outside of the sector, within it volunteering shortages mean that many charity retailers are looking to broaden their volunteering offer, and this includes attracting people who are looking to gain work experience. As a result, some are developing training schemes around specialist or advanced roles (eg, visual merchandising or online retailing), as well as offering volunteers the opportunity to work towards externally-recognised qualifications, most commonly NVQs in Customer Service.

The sector’s use of volunteers looking for paid work is not without its challenges. Shop managers, for instance, often have to take on additional training responsibilities, particularly if supporting volunteers who have been out of the labour market for some time. What’s more, the practice has at times been controversial. A few years ago, a number of charity retailers became embroiled in the workfare scandal linked to mandatory JobCentre work placements. This burnt bridges between charity shops and the JobCentre, although in some cases relationships have been restored, thanks in part due to the end of mandatory placements at a national level, and improved communication locally between individual shops and JobCentre staff.

For volunteers like Graham and Jane – charity shops’ growing interest in attracting, and providing opportunities for, people looking to build their employability skills, represents a wholly positive development. And our findings do show that charity retail can support those far from the labour market to build confidence and develop work-ready skills, while giving those losing jobs in other sectors the chance to re-train and move into retail jobs in the local area.

For charity retailers, measuring and evidencing their impact in this area remains a key challenge. Taking steps towards this, however, will help them to share best practice both within and across retail chains, as well as enabling them to reach out to potential volunteers – letting them know that help to get a job is just down the high street.

*the names and some of the personal details of the interviewees have been changed to protect their anonymity